IF seeing a world-premiere musical before it went to Broadway weren’t exciting enough, THEN learning that Tony-award winners Idina Menzel and LaChanze were in it, along with Anthony Rapp and James Snyder, I was elated beyond comprehension. IF the writer/composer team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey could write a great musical, like Next To Normal, THEN their new show was probably going to be awesome. IF, after seeing it, I told you it was perfect, THEN I’d be lying. But IF I told you that If/Then at the National Theatre has something compelling to it, THEN that would be the absolute truth.
Set around the premise that one tiny, seemingly insignificant decision can alter the course of one’s life, If/Then addresses the ultimate existential question. What if…? In this case, Elizabeth (Menzel) simultaneously experiences dueling, but separate, existences based on the events that follow when she is faced with choosing whether to get coffee with a neighbor or attend a protest rally with a friend. In one scenario, she joins her neighbor Kate (LaChanze) for coffee, and in the process meets her future husband, becomes an adjunct professor, has a family, and is eventually faced with terrible tragedy that forces her to question whether she made the right choice that day she went out for coffee. In the other scenario, she joins her friend Lucas (Rapp) at a protest rally where she runs into an old colleague who offers her a corporate job as a New York city planner, becomes a successful professional, choosing a career over marriage and falling into a series of unsuccessful romantic relationships, eventually facing a terrible tragedy that forces her to question whether she made the right choice that day she followed Lucas to the rally.
While this was an interesting concept, I found that I didn’t fully understand exactly what was happening, or who was who in which scenario, until about 30 minutes into the show. Once I figured out that a red background was referring to the events of the coffee scenario, a blue background meant the rally scenario, that Elizabeth was Liz in one scenario and Beth in another, that her friends remained constant in both, but her careers and personal relationships didn’t cross over into both worlds, it made more sense. Both lives that Elizabeth leads are fun to see juxtaposed side by side and director Michael Greif has seamlessly woven them together. Events in each of the separate scenarios show the audience how, together, Elizabeth is a whole person, but separately, she’s incomplete, longing for something more. Because both lives find her wanting, it’s difficult to know which scenario you hope is the ‘true’ one, and about halfway through Act II, I realized that somehow the two would have to converge in order to have a satisfactory ending.
However, that ending, while it found a way to tie the two worlds together into a fairly complete conclusion, also negated the whole point of the show in doing so. This entire premise, based on the fact that destiny is created by the individual choices humans make, is erased by the realization that regardless of which simple choice Elizabeth made five years prior, it really didn’t matter because, in the end, fate was going to step in and make the choice for her. And, if fate is going to decide the course of human life, why bother considering whether you made the right choice if there is, ultimately, no actual choice?
If, existentially, there is no choice in life, at least there is a choice in casting. And the cast of If/Then is pleasantly diverse and unique, shying away from a homogenous ensemble and predictable supporting characters in favor of actors who look and act more like actual humans than those usually found in the typical Broadway assembly line of tall, lithe, unrealistically beautiful people.
Clearly written as a love letter for Elizabeth, If/Then provides Menzel with a star vehicle that she aptly handles with finesse and ease. Combining her talent for dry wit and her beautiful, bright voice, she really is stunning on stage and proves herself worthy of her status as a Broadway superstar. Although playing supporting roles to Menzel’s Elizabeth, LaChanze, Rapp, Snyder, and Jerry Dixon prove that they are also worthy of star status. LaChanze is a natural talent with such smooth vocals that I found myself excited each time she sang and secretly hoping that somehow Kate’s story line would not be merely a supporting one. Likewise, Rapp’s Lucas, written to be quite different in the two scenarios, showed great acting prowess by navigating flawlessly between the two. Snyder, as Elizabeth’s husband, Josh, in the coffee scenario, was so endearing, it was easy to see why Elizabeth gave up the single life for him and made it that much more heartbreaking when she had to give him up. Dixon, as Stephen, Elizabeth’s boss in the rally scenario, defies all stereotypes of the smarmy, arrogant boss, dripping icky sex appeal and was, instead, a genuine, down to earth, handsome man to be respected and liked. Rounding out the cast was an incredible ensemble who all successfully blended into the scenarios while maintaining individuality of character.
Musically, there are a handful of numbers that will no doubt find their way into the audition songbook of every aspiring actor, including “You Don’t Need to Love Me” (sung by Lucas declaring his love to Beth), “Hey Kid” (sung by Josh to his unborn baby), “What the F—“ (sung by Elizabeth during two separate moments of romantic weakness), and Elizabeth’s existential awaking torch song “Always Starting Over.”
Knowing that the next stop for If/Then is on Broadway, and knowing that while I thoroughly enjoyed the show, I left with a lot of confusion regarding what the actual point of the show is, I’m interested to see what the not-so-distant future holds for it. IF one small decision really can alter the course of one’s life, THEN maybe a few small changes can alter the course of the show and make it a success on the Great White Way.
If/Then performs now through December 8 at the National Theatre, located at 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington DC 20004. Tickets $58-$103. For more information, call 202-628-6161.